Facebook: A danger or a blessing to Ugandans?

Facebook: A danger or a blessing to Ugandans?

Kampala, Uganda | By Timothy Kalyegira | Qn. What dangers, drawbacks or disappointments might come with such a large and influential meeting place?

Ans. It is just like our university campuses, our workplaces, our neighborhoods and our local drinking bars. It will have its moments of pleasure and discovery, but also bring along with it all the unpleasant side effects we have come to associate with Ugandan social life – the pettiness, for starters.

Since it was founded in 2004, the social media website Facebook has gone on to become one of the most successful websites and Internet creations of any kind. Ever. It has made its way around the world and was getting over 700 million users by the end of 2011.

It is the number one most visited website in and by Ugandans. (The top 10 most visited websites by Ugandans are, in order of ranking, 1. Facebook 2. Google.co.ug 3. Google.com 4. Yahoo.com 5. YouTube 6. Twitter 7. Wikipedia 8. Daily Monitor 9. Blogspot 10. Linkedin)

It is estimated that there are about 500,000 Ugandans on Facebook. That is, Ugandans resident in Uganda and this is not to mention the tens of thousands of other Ugandans who live, study and work abroad.

The mobile phone companies Orange Telecom, MTN and Airtel have an arrangement with Facebook by which they grant free access to the website via their cell phones.

So popular is it – and from the point of view of some, time-wasting – that many companies and agencies in Uganda have either blocked the website from use on their office computers or restricted access to Facebook to only one hour a day.

It was announced on May 1st that Facebook’s long-anticipated and much hyped Initial Public Offering (IPO) of equity to an eagerly waiting world will be on May 18, 2012. Facebook’s IPO is expected to raise a staggering $100 billion, making it one of the world’s richest companies and making its already super-rich billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, his sister Randi and others with major stock holdings in Facebook that much wealthier.

Why such international success?

Any website that brought together human beings in the way most human beings live their lives and express themselves, in this case socially, was always going to be a major success.

Before Facebook, there was MySpace. Alongside MySpace and Facebook is the micro-blogging website Twitter and the website for corporate professionals, Linkedin, and the Google answer to Facebook launched last year, Google Plus.

As Zuckerberg told the BBC in 2010, Facebook as an idea was originally basic: names, sex, favourite films, university halls of residence, and circle of friends.

What made Facebook explode was that a circle of friends of one person called Susan intersected with that of a friend of Susan’s called George, and on and on it went expanding, in the United States and eventually around the world.

Raymond Byabazaire, a long-time watcher of social, artistic and cultural trends in Ugandan history and also a keen user of Facebook assesses this huge social platform this way, starting with the opportunities it offers:

“It brings people together, especially those who already know each other – locally & internationally. You get to re-build or re-invigorate a long-lost relationship. It allows people to interact regularly, on both “light” and “heavy” issues. It allows for both private (private mail boxes) and open discussions (Facebook Wall).

Personally, it has brought me into direct contact with people in the entertainment industry that I don’t think I would have, without [Facebook].”…”Branch Out” has now been established, to promote business/professional contacts. Let’s see how that goes.”

Certainly there are many important uses of Facebook, especially that of finding long-lost friends.

From the late 1990s, when the Internet had just arrived in Uganda until about 2006 with the advent of Web Logs (or Blogs), the only Ugandans who could be searched and found on the Internet’s search engines were major politicians like President Museveni, cabinet ministers, MPs and other news-makers and historical figures like Idi Amin, sports stars and so on.

The average Ugandan civil servant, student, house wife, businessman, regular at a “kafunda” and other “man on the street” types could not be found by checking up on them in Yahoo!, Google, MSN, and Lycos.

Ordinary Ugandans had email accounts like Yahoo!, Hotmail, Gmail and others, but email is not easily searchable via the search engines.

With everyone these days getting onto Facebook and Facebook being easily searchable online, at last it became possible not just for major public figures to show up in search results, but even the humble Rashid or Margaret who have no claim to fame whatsoever can also be found.

This has been Facebook’s greatest contribution to Uganda and to the world. And because so many millions of ordinary people who would otherwise not appear in search engine results are now on Facebook, Facebook has become a sort of “Internet within the Internet”.

For many people, life can go on comfortably for months with them getting all their information and contacts within Facebook without having to start off from the world’s number one website and number one search engine, Google.

Facebook is like a suburb, a Garden City, a Sandton in Johannesburg, a self-contained “city within a city” with all the restaurants, hair salons, chapels, bookshops, shopping malls, car garages, hospitals, children’s parks and other public places that do not require one to visit the wider city.

But what about its disadvantages?

All these seem like unquestionable advantages. And yet there are some aspects of social media that might be problematic for developing societies like Uganda.

To begin with, Uganda does not have a good record of serious academic or other intellectual output. Very few Ugandans have written autobiographies, histories, biographies or scientific works of more than 400 pages in length.

The number of new book titles published per year in Uganda, according to estimates by this writer and other sources, is less than 100. It could be more than 50 titles, but not much more than that.

By contrast, Britain published 50,000 new book titles a year, France and Russia 70,000, China 120,000 and the United States about 150,000.

In a natural growth of a country, the pattern should have been to first develop the printing, distribution, editing, writing, design and research capability to create a thriving book publishing industry.

The tail end of this over the course of time would have been the spread of social media. In Uganda’s case, all the stages of serious book publishing have been skipped and the current generation of Ugandans have started off their experience of knowledge and interaction with social media.

Facebook is typically exactly what the name suggests: social media. With that comes the characteristic of these Internet platforms. They tend to be informal, casual, focused on social interaction. Some might saw shallow even.

There are several specialized discussion groups within Facebook, from journalists’ forums to one on 1970s Soul and Funk music, activists groups and others.

There is no doubt that many Ugandans engage in serious political, journalistic, human rights and other debates on Facebook.

However, exchanging views on even the serious subjects is not the same thing as the discipline, solitary, difficult process of putting together a full-length book. Grammatical errors, slang, and colloquial language are the dominant form of expression on Facebook.

David Tumusiiwe, Online Editor at the Daily Monitor has another view of one of Facebook’s disadvantages, at least as Ugandans use it: it has become the national notice board for whining.

“We mistake complaining on Facebook to be all the active engagement we need to face Ugandan problems”, Tumusiimwe says.

It could be argued that since in general recent years have seen the national mood sour, the political climate turn negative and the recent Afrobarometer poll had 74 per cent of Ugandans saying the country is heading in the “wrong direction”, the grumbling and complaining that Tumusiiwe says dominates Facebook can be understood in that context.

But for there to be little else dominating the Ugandan conversation on Facebook other than complaining does not say much about how the website is being used. Also, the same Ugandan society that cannot motivate itself to author more than 100 full-length books a year cannot be expected to make discourse on Facebook particularly enlightening.

There are other areas of caution with Facebook itself that users need to bear in mind. It is not, after all, the rosy and fulfilling arena that many think it is.

We return to Raymond Byabazaire for a word of caution to bear in mind when using Facebook:

“In that regular interaction, especially over topical issues, there are dangers of misrepresenting yourself or putting across an unintended message in a discussion. Unlike a TV or radio talk show, where you can quickly correct yourself in real time, on [Facebook] there’s a time lag. By the time you make the correction, dozens of other messages from other people, may have come in and your correction slips by unnoticed, but yet still a certain impression has been created about you.

It could mislead many subscribers, especially young ones, into thinking that all the ‘friends’ they have are genuine friends. There could be disguised stalkers, child molesters, rapists, etc, masquerading as something else. On a more harmless level (for the older people), one can get into the illusion that all these people you chat animatedly with will have the same attitude, when you meet them…”

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These risks to social media Byabazaire points out above have been widely warned about on the Internet. The unproductive atmosphere of complaining and at best idly gossiping observed by Daily Monitor’s Tumusiiwe all add up to make the case that Facebook is by no means an Internet heaven.

It is just like our university campuses, our workplaces, our neighbourhoods and our local drinking bars. It will have its moments of pleasure and discovery, but also bring along with it all the unpleasant side effects we have come to associate with Ugandan social life – the gossiping, the pettiness-and that’s the tip of the iceberg.